Human Diversity

A People that Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy

Professor Kevin McDonald’s book, A People that Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy advances the idea that Judaism has evolved as a group evolutionary strategy which has resulted in intense hostility to all non-Jewish groups and has directed Jewish behavior over the millennia.

In Chapter 1 of his book, Professor McDonald says that group evolutionary strategies are proposed to be theoretically unconstrained on a variety of dimensions, and the remaining chapters flesh out the specific characteristics of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy.

Group strategies are viewed as experiments in living which can be developed and maintained by purely cultural processes, although a later chapter discusses how variation in evolved systems may predispose individuals to form cohesive, genetically exclusive groups.

“Of critical importance are within-group social controls and their rationalizing ideology which

1.) effectively limit exogamy;

2.) enforce cultural segregation;

3.) promote within-group charity and economic cooperation; and

4.) structure mating opportunities within the group in a manner which ensures that there will be eugenic and environmental pressures directed at developing phenotypes (especially intelligence, resource acquisition ability, high investment parenting, group allegiance) ideally suited to fulfilling certain ecological niches within human societies or necessary for maintaining group commitment and cohesion.

Chapter 2 discusses the evidence from modern studies on population genetic differences between Jews and gentiles. This material is relevant to the hypothesis that Judaism represents a group strategy which is fairly (but not completely) closed to penetration from gentile gene pools.

The data indicate that Jews have remained genetically distinct from the groups they have lived among despite having lived among them for centuries.

In addition, Jewish populations in very diverse areas have significantly more genetic commonality than is the case between Jews and the gentile populations they have lived among for centuries.

Chapter 3 discusses some preliminary issues which are important for the general theory that Judaism constitutes an example of a religion that can be viewed as a group evolutionary strategy.

There is a pronounced tendency toward idealizing endogamy and condemning exogamy apparent in the writings of the Tanakh. The importance of consanguineous marriages and extended kinship relationships is also very apparent in these writings, especially for understanding the activities of the patriarchs.

It is shown that much of the ideology of Judaism as an evolutionary strategy for maintaining genetic and cultural segregation in a Diaspora context is apparent in the writings of Priestly stratum of the Tanakh.

There is scholarly agreement that this material was written by Israelite priests during the period of the Babylonian exile.

It is proposed, therefore, that Judaism as an experiment in living dates from this period (6th-5th centuries B.C.).

Chapter 4 discusses those aspects of Jewish religious ideology and practice that have facilitated the genetic and cultural separation of Jews and gentiles, and is thus relevant to the hypothesis that Judaism is a self-chosen, genetically fairly closed evolutionary strategy. Of the hundreds of human groups in the ancient world, Judaism was the only one that avoided the powerful tendencies toward cultural and genetic assimilation characteristic of Western societies.

Judaism as a group strategy depends on the development of social controls reinforcing group identity and preventing high levels of genetic admixture from surrounding groups.

This genetic separation has been facilitated by a variety of cultural practices: religious practices and beliefs, language and mannerisms, physical appearance, customs, occupations, and living in physically separated areas which were administered by Jews according to Jewish civil and criminal law.

All of these practices date from very early stages of the diaspora.

This chapter surveys these ideologies and behaviors, particularly their role in severely limiting the numbers of gentile converts to Judaism and preventing intermarriage between Jews and gentiles.

Chapter 5 reviews evidence for resource and reproductive competition between Jews and gentiles, as well as for the proposition that anti-Semitism has been strongest among those gentile groups most in competition with Jews. Evidence is reviewed indicating that Jews were commonly utilized as an intermediary group between a ruling elite (and especially alien elites) and the native population.

In these situations the elite gentile group actively encouraged and profited from Jewish economic interests to the detriment of other sectors of the native population.

After summarizing data on this type of relationship in widely dispersed parts of the world and widely separated points in time, separate sections are then devoted to Jewish/gentile resource and reproductive competition in a wide range of economic activities in Spain prior to the Inquisition, in early modern Poland, and in Europe and America following Jewish Emancipation.

Chapter 6 discusses data indicating the importance of kin-based cooperation and altruism within Judaism, its role in resource competition with gentiles, and its importance in maintaining cohesion within the Jewish community.

Data are presented indicating that Jewish economic activities have often been characterized by a high degree of nepotism and within-group charity which is central to conceptualizing Judaism as an evolutionary strategy. Group rather than individual interests have been of primary importance throughout Jewish history, so that, e.g., there were sanctions on individual Jews to ensure that the total resource flow into the group was maximized rather than allow individual Jews to maximize their resource acquisition.

Further, it is shown that within-group charity and altruism have been facilitated by strong social controls within traditional Jewish communities which enforced a high level of within-group altruism.

Traditional Jewish communities were also characterized by strong social controls against Jews who cooperated with gentiles against Jewish interests or who patronized gentile businesses or aided gentiles in economic activities.

Finally, data are discussed indicating that there were limits on within-group altruism among Jews. Although altruism toward poor Jews was an important aspect of Judaism, there was also discrimination against poorer Jews, especially in times of economic and demographic crises.

There was also discrimination between different Jewish groups as recipients of altruistic behavior as a function of genetic distance.

Chapter 7 discusses hypotheses related to the issue of whether Judaism constitutes an ecologically specialized evolutionary strategy. The following five propositions are of interest:

(1) Judaism can be characterized in ecological terms as a high investment reproductive strategy which facilitates resource competition by Jews with the gentiles;

(2) Success in mastering the vast and complex Jewish religious writings was strongly associated with prestige within the community and was ultimately linked rather directly to control of resources and reproductive success;

(3) Jewish religious and social practices fostered the development of high investment patterns of child rearing necessary for successful resource competition and a role in society above that of primary producer;

(4) Judaism has been characterized by assortative mating, and cultural and natural selection for intelligence and other traits related to obtaining resources within stratified human societies; Data are reviewed indicating that Jewish populations have a higher average intelligence than their gentile counterparts, as well as a number of other demographic markers indicating that Jews as a group engage in high investment parenting.

(5) Jewish groups have been characterized by a set of practices aimed at socializing individuals into identifying strongly with the group and excluding individuals (and their relatives) who depart from group goals’ the latter practices ultimately having a eugenic affect on psychological mechanisms predisposing people to forming cohesive, collectivist groups.

Finally, Chapter 8 discusses the origins of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. As indicated above, part of the argument in Chapter 1 is that evolutionary group strategies need not be viewed as determined by ecological contingencies or evolutionary theory.

Group strategies are viewed as experiments in living which can be developed and maintained by purely cultural processes.

Chapter 8 modifies this perspective by suggesting that a threefold combination of historically contingent factors facilitated the development of Judaism as an evolutionary strategy:

1.) a strong predisposition to ethnocentrism characteristic of Middle Eastern cultures generally; It is argued that this predisposition is genetically influenced, but that the tendency toward ethnocentrism has been exacerbated as a result of selective effects resulting from Jewish cultural practices;

2.) unique historical experiences (including especially the sojourn in Egypt recounted in the Biblical books of Genesis and Exodus) which showed that a diaspora strategy could be successful; and

3.) the unique early organization of the Israelite tribes which resulted in a powerful class of priests and Levites whose status depended on their genealogy and whose own individual interests were intimately bound up with the fate of the entire group. These individuals benefited most from the group strategy which ultimately evolved into historical Judaism.

Read more at Professor Kevin McDonald’s website.

Kevin MacDonald is Professor of  Psychology at California State University–Long Beach. After receiving a Masters degree in evolutionary biology, he received a Ph. D. in Biobehavioral Sciences, both at the University of Connecticut.  Since assuming his position at California State University–Long Beach, his research has focused on developing evolutionary perspectives on culture, developmental psychology and personality theory, the origins and maintenance of monogamous marriage in Western Europe, and ethnic relations (group evolutionary strategies). He is the author of more than 100 scholarly papers and reviews.